Will free col­lege of­fer catch fire? New York de­tails raise doubts

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY ANNA GRONEWOLD

AL­BANY, N.Y. | Will New York’s firstin-the-na­tion free tu­ition pro­gram for mid­dle-class col­lege stu­dents spread to other states?

That’s the hope of pro­po­nents such as Bernard San­ders and Hil­lary Clin­ton, who made debt-free col­lege a key talk­ing point in their Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. And that’s the pre­dic­tion of its main cham­pion, Demo­cratic New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo, who called the plan a “model for the na­tion.”

But even as higher ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts ap­plaud the con­cept of free tu­ition, they ques­tion finer points of New York’s plan and whether it’s a model that should be repli­cated else­where.

New York’s plan would cover in­state pub­lic col­lege tu­ition for full-time stu­dents whose fam­i­lies earn $125,000 or less, a ben­e­fit that could ex­tend to 32,000 stu­dents a year.

Some ex­perts are con­cerned the plan would ac­tu­ally do lit­tle to help the need­i­est stu­dents, whose tu­ition al­ready is covered by other aid. They also ques­tion the plan not ad­dress­ing other col­lege costs be­yond tu­ition.

And there has al­ready been much de­bate about a re­stric­tion — added late in the ne­go­ti­a­tions — that re­cip­i­ents live and work in the state for the num­ber of years they re­ceive the ben­e­fit. If stu­dents move out of state, the money would be con­verted into a loan that must be re­paid.

“Stu­dents are not go­ing to plan for fu­ture debt be­cause they’re go­ing to think they don’t have any,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Tem­ple Univer­sity ex­pert on col­lege af­ford­abil­ity is­sues. “And then they’ll get a job in another state, and they’re go­ing to get smacked in the face lit­er­ally by the state of New York for the bill.”

Ms. Goldrick-Rab said the re­stric­tion be­trays stu­dents by chang­ing the nar­ra­tive from broad free col­lege tu­ition to a work­force de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tive.

State Univer­sity of New York Chan­cel­lor Nancy Zim­pher says the con­tro­versy may be overblown, not­ing that about 85 per­cent of grad­u­ates from the state univer­sity sys­tem stay in New York after grad­u­a­tion any­way. “It kind of tamps down the drama,” she said.

Even Mr. San­ders, who has long ad­vo­cated ad­dress­ing the na­tion’s $1.3 tril­lion stu­dent debt prob­lem, ac­knowl­edged there are some as­pects of New York’s plan he dis­agrees with. But he gave Mr. Cuomo and New York law­mak­ers credit for be­ing first to tackle it.

“They have paved the way for other states to go for­ward, for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to go for­ward to make pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties tu­ition-free,” the Ver­mont sen­a­tor said in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press. “I see that as a tremen­dous achieve­ment, and we look for­ward to other states fol­low­ing New York.”

Bar­mak Nas­sirian, di­rec­tor of fed­eral re­la­tions and pol­icy anal­y­sis for the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of State Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties, agreed New York’s pro­gram is a strong po­lit­i­cal move but ques­tioned an ex­e­cu­tion that “bor­ders on gim­micky.”

He was par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of New York’s “last-dol­lar” tu­ition-only setup, which would keep costs rel­a­tively low — an es­ti­mated $163 mil­lion a year — by pay­ing the tu­ition only after awards from state and fed­eral sources are ap­plied. Stu­dents from fam­i­lies mak­ing $50,000 or less wouldn’t ben­e­fit be­cause their tu­ition is al­ready covered by other pro­grams.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the need­i­est are left with noth­ing but a feel-good mes­sage,” Mr. Nas­sirian said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

New York is ex­per­i­ment­ing with free tu­ition pro­grams for mid­dle-class col­lege stu­dents, but state lead­ers worry that the funds may not reach the need­i­est.

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